by Lori M. Myers, Senior Interview Editor
Several years ago, writer Dinty W. Moore offered Sarah Einstein some good advice: Marriage is like writing, he said. You need to show up at your writing desk and at your marriage desk.
There’s more to this, which Einstein writes about in her essay “What Therefore Dinty Has Joined Together” for Bending Genre, but she has wholeheartedly committed herself to the written word. Her essays and short stories have appeared in noted publications, and her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
After interviewing Einstein and hearing how passionate she is about writing, I just can’t wait to meet her face-to-face at Hippocampus Magazine’s HippoCamp 2015!
Lori: Your upcoming book Mot: A Memoir has a really different premise.
Sarah: It’s funny. If you tell people you’re going to do something that they find ridiculous–say, go out west to visit a homeless friend in his homelessness–they will do everything they can to talk you out of it. But, if you add “because I’m going to write a book about it” when you tell them, suddenly they will think it is a great idea.
So, in a sense, you wanted to prove something.
In large part, I started the book so that I could make an unreasonable thing seem reasonable to other people. I was fascinated by Mot, who for almost seventy years survived a more difficult world than I could even imagine in some very ingenious ways.
One of the first stories he told me was about traveling to Romania–which he managed on a very tiny Social Security check by crafting an elaborate travel plan that involved living in airports while waiting on seat to open up on a flight to England and managing the passport process without having an actual address–because Romania offers free dental care to everyone, even non-citizens, and the US doesn’t offer it to anyone. I realized I would never be that clever about getting by in the world, that if I had been in his position, I would have just railed against the system and let my teeth go bad.
Wow! You learned so much about yourself through this memoir and writing about this unique character.
I wanted to understand his strength and ingenuity, and the way that I understand the world is by writing about it.
Did Mot: A Memoir begin in another form?
I did publish a short piece in Ninth Letter that is an abbreviated version of the first four chapters, but the chapters had already been written as such before I condensed them into the essay. Like a lot of writers, I was afraid I didn’t have a whole book in me, and if I hadn’t had the support of the MFA program at West Virginia University, that might have been true. Books take so much work, over such a long period of time, that it’s easy to get discouraged and to worry that you’re being self-indulgent to even try. So I hedged by bets and sent out the essay, mostly because I needed the encouragement of seeing at least a piece of the story get published. I’m proud of the essay version, which won a Pushcart, but I’m also glad that I didn’t stop there.
Congratulations on the Pushcart! What did taking the next step into book form give to you as a writer?
The essay tells the emotional story of our friendship, the book tells the larger truth about the limits of that friendship and of individual intervention into a life that has been poorly served by a broken system of social services.
You’ve written across genres – essays, short stories, nonfiction. Why is this your preference or are you starting to focus more on one than the others?
I’m not proud of this, but I write primarily in nonfictional genres because I’m a weirdo.
I’m guessing that our Hippocampus Magazine submitters might be wondering about the “weirdo” description.
The most common reaction to my short stories has been “I don’t believe that Character X would do Thing Y, where is the motivation?” and, since my fiction is almost always based on my life, and since the character that readers are usually talking about is the one that most closely represents me, it’s a hard problem to overcome.
Ah, so it’s about your own unique, sometimes weird, truth.
I just don’t know how to write myself as plausible in fiction, where characters are supposed to act in ways that make sense, because apparently I don’t act in a way that makes sense. The only fiction I’ve written that succeeds is fiction based on things I have observed, rather than things I have done, for just this reason. So I write mostly nonfictional things because of the special agreement that readers of nonfiction make with authors: we will believe these things happened because you’ve told us they have, you don’t have to justify the actions of the people on the page to us. By the way, this is also why I’m so completely in the camp that says nonfiction needs to be actually nonfictional. Without that contract with the reader, we can’t write the inexplicable, we can only write that which we can also explain, and if I can explain a thing, it probably doesn’t interest me enough for me to write about it.
When did you begin writing creatively?
I started writing in my twenties, after taking a creative nonfiction workshop with Kevin Oderman. I loved it, but I also recognized that I didn’t yet have enough insight into myself, or the world, to be writing well about things which mattered and, because of that, that I was falling back mostly on cleverness and word play in my work. I don’t much admire pieces that rely on writerly tricks to make up for a lack of real meaning in the work, so I stopped. Instead, I spent almost 20 years reading work that I do admire, studying it, and readying myself to pick it back up again when I felt that genuinely had something to say. That didn’t happen until I was almost 40, and when it did, the first thing I did was return to Kevin’s classroom, and I stayed there for three years and earned an MFA. For the last four years, I’ve been studying under Dinty W. Moore at Ohio University as I worked toward my Ph.D.
How important are good writing teachers/mentors?
I believe that writers need mentors, and I have been very lucky to have some of the best. Not everyone gets a seven year apprenticeship working with the acknowledged masters of their chosen craft. It’s impossible to overstate how grateful I am for the opportunities I’ve had, or how very important to my own work Oderman and Moore have been. They weren’t my only mentors–I’ve had dozens, both in and outside of the academy–and I am of course grateful to everyone who has helped me as I struggled to learn to write a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, a book. The generosity of writers toward those of us who hope to be writers never ceases to amaze me.
But I’m particularly indebted to Kevin and Dinty, and to the programs that allowed me to study with them. Anyone familiar with their very different ways of writing will recognize echoes of both in my work.
The HippoCamp creative nonfiction conference is coming up August 7-9 in Lancaster, Pa., and I’m excited about the session I’ll be leading on “Acting the Book.” You’ll also be busy during that weekend.
Like everyone else, I’m going to revel in the company of other writers at HippoCamp, relax into the joy of being among people who do what I do and care about the things I care about. That’s my favorite thing about writing conferences! I love nerding out about writing with other people who also love nerding out about writing. I’m also excited to be leading a generative workshop focused on the collage essay, which is one of my favorite forms because it leaves so much space for the reader to join the writer in making meaning of what’s on the page. I can’t wait to see the work that comes out of the exercises we’ll be doing![boxer set=”lori-myers”]